NEW YORK — Last October, at the conference’s annual media day, everything about the Big East was new so there was much nostalgia for what was. Wednesday at Madison Square Garden, it was no longer relevant to look back. It was about what is and what will be.
“I think getting the first year of the Big East over with was the greatest thing we did,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said.
Connecticut and Syracuse are not coming back. This Big East is simply different — smaller with just 10 teams, not as powerful, a very good basketball-only league that is now trying to find its place in these changing times for college sports.
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The only league coach who did not vote for Villanova to win the league in the preseason poll was Wright. By rule, he could not so he voted for Georgetown, which was selected second, followed by St. John’s and Xavier. The Wildcats, coming off a 29-5, 14-2 conference season, with four returning starters, are the only league team with national buzz at the moment.
“This league was built to be a basketball power and we intend to remain a basketball power,” commissioner Val Ackerman said hopefully.
Last season, the Big East had Creighton’s Doug McDermott, the national player of the year. It had Villanova, which got off to a great start and parlayed that into a high NCAA seed. It also had no teams get to the Sweet 16 and four teams in the tournament. If Providence did not beat Creighton to win the tournament final, it likely would have been just three teams.
“You can’t make excuses,” Wright said. “We’ve got to deal with it … Everything is going to be changing in college athletics. You’re going to see rule changes … One thing that’s going to remain the same is the Big East is a basketball conference and teams are committed to basketball. I think we’re just going to keep getting better and better.”
The power-five football conferences are going to be raising the price of doing business. Wright said the Big East presidents and athletic directors are committed to seeing what the new landscape will look like and then be willing to ante up whatever price the big boys settle on.
Meanwhile, in the short-term, there is no reason to think Villanova won’t be very good again this season. The veteran starters have been starting for years. The seniors came in when Villanova crashed in 2011-12. The juniors and seniors were there for the turnaround and the 29-win payoff.
“I think our chemistry just separates us from other teams,” junior point guard Ryan Arcidiacono said. “And I think this year is no different.”
Seniors JayVaughn Pinkston and Darrun Hilliard were named first- and second-team, respectively. Arcidiacono was also named to the second team, giving the Cats three of the league’s top 10 players. St. John’s (first-team D’Angelo Harrison and Vaux High’s Rysheed Jordan, second-team) was the only other team with more than one player on the teams.
Nova junior big man Daniel Ochefu, one of the most improved players in the league last season, is back. The fifth starter, Wright said, will be either Dylan Ennis or Josh Hart.
Love the leadership shown by our captains so far this year pic.twitter.com/C0fXoJT8to
— Jay Wright (@VUCoachJWright) October 15, 2014
James Bell, the Big 5 Player of the Year, and top sub Tony Chennault, graduated. They will both be missed.
Wright understands that when you return four starters from a 29-win team, there will be expectations.
“It’s an honor,” Wright said. “We’ve done this before. A lot of expectation comes with it, a lot of attention comes with it so it creates a new challenge for you.”
The coach embraces the challenge, but he also has a long memory. He was an assistant on the 1987-88 Nova team that went to the Elite Eight. Only Mark Plansky was lost from that team so expectations were high for 1988-89.
“I think we were ranked preseason No. 7 in the country,” Wright said. “Kenny Wilson and Doug West were rated the No. 1 backcourt in the country.”
Those Cats finished 18-16.
The Wildcats won last season because they played so well together and crushed their opponents from the two lines, outscoring opponents by 252 points from three and 92 points from the free-throw line, a total of 344 points, a hard-to-overcome 10 points per game.
Bell is a big loss. He made big shots. He defended. He led. Like Plansky, Bell, Wright said, was the glue.
This team will be different, but where they go will be up to them.